Eliminating Tension Between Content Writing And Web Design

“Good web design starts with content.”

-Jeffrey Zeldman keynote at An Event Apart Washington D.C 2012 via Luke Wroblewski, Design Consultant

Content and web design go together. Content shapes design choices, site structure and user experience. The words themselves even take on a design element with font selection.

It seems obvious that content developers and designers would be part of the same team (sometimes they are the same person). Both are intertwined in such a way that they should be part of the same process. However, this is not always the case.

An often unspoken tension exists between content development and design.

In the past, this topic has been addressed by 37signals in a chapter of Getting Real called Copywriting is Interface Design. Joshua Porter, Director of UX at HubSpot, responded with his post Interface Design is Copywriting. Both assert that words direct the experience of the audience.

The fact that this topic needs to be addressed and commented on suggests that there was disagreement in the first place. The issue is not as simple as art versus business because many on either side believe that both matter (although clearly some, if you surf the web even occasionally, do not share this belief).

Assumptions often create this tension. Addressing the accuracy of the assumptions as well as the process of implementation can help alleviate this tension. This article will explore some of these issues and propose solutions that will benefit the most important party in this process, the site user.

This is not an attempt to build a case on who serves in the role of content creator. A variety of factors, including talent and economics, dictate who serves in this capacity. Generally, it is either going to be the web designer or someone within the design company, a dedicated writer or someone from the marketing department within the client organization, or an independent copywriter or content marketer.

So let’s take a look at each assumption.

Content Will Alter My Design

The creative process is delicate. It’s not easy to create a design that pleases both the user and the client.

Some designers might prefer to put off content until after the design is complete because of this assumption. This feeling also might come from clients demanding an initial design mock-up prior to discussing content purpose and goals.

The problem here is with the process.

If content is part of the design process from the beginning, content and design align to determine goals together. –Click to Tweet

Depending on site, the content could range from a brief tagline leading to a free trial to an extensive brand-building story. Both have major implications on the design of the site.

The same works in reverse. Content writers are often given a design and told exactly how much space they have to accomplish their goal.

This isn’t altogether bad as writers often seek to be clear and concise and space constraints can facilitate this goal. The difficulty comes when the content is being squeezed into an area of bullet points when storytelling is necessary. Witty catch phrases can replace meaningful descriptions. A thoughtful, three-step process can turn into a pushy two-step process.

Giving equal weight to design elements and content from the outset solves this error in process.

Copywriting Will Degrade The Design

This is different from altering the design from a visual aesthetic standpoint. This idea is that copywriting makes the design worse.

It’s no coincidence that many design-oriented sites use the term “content” more freely than “copy” or “copywriting” which are viewed as marketing terms. “Content marketing” is another phrase that is intended to capture the purpose of certain content.

Brian Clark of Copyblogger explains content marketing as content created for a marketing purpose and copywriting as crafting content to direct the reader to take a specific action. Both fall under the general umbrella of content and both work together in creating a user experience.

So why are designers and writers often using different terminology?

Perspective plays a role in this difference. Assumptions that designers are only concerned with a visual aesthetic and that marketers only care about financial gain are a starting point.

These assumptions exist because sometimes they are true.

Plenty of websites exist with beautiful designs and a dead-end user experience because the visual look and feel trumped moving the user toward a goal with content.

From the copywriting side, we have all seen plenty of sites with bold red text and yellow highlights imploring us to buy now to solve all of our problems before this product with fake scarcity magically disappears. Also, the days of SEO keyword stuffing are still fresh in the minds of designers and degraded the look, feel and effectiveness of countless websites in the name of organic search ranking (which was thought to be a precursor to more sales).

The idea that copywriting will degrade a design could also imply not just bad writing, but writing that doesn’t fit the ethical standards of the designer.

Massaged data is one example. Say an increase in sales from $1 to $11 is disclosed as a 1000% sales increase. It’s not quite as impressive as $1000 to $11,000 and it just doesn’t feel right when you consider the perspective of your reader.

One way to deal with these extreme assumptions is to discard them. If you are a writer working with a designer that sees no value in your work or in a site that leads users toward a specific goal, don’t work with him.

As a designer, working with someone whose words conjure up images of snake oil salesman is a big mistake. Finding people whose intentions are the same as yours and who are open to honest dialogue is not that difficult. It does require saying “no” sometimes.

If the problem is terminology because “copywriting” conjures images of shady ad men and the term “content” softens these perceptions, outstanding. However, it’s important to agree that words and design are part of a user-focused experience meant to accomplish something. That “something” could be a buying decision or it could be something that logically leads to a different next step.

Content Trumps Design

Content creators and clients often create their list of essential content without regard for the impact on design. The visual aesthetic, ease of navigation and general user experience should directly impact the volume, flow and placement of content.

The assumption of content trumping design is muddled with data trumping everything.

Slaves to data believe that it should dictate the words you use, placement of buttons, color scheme, etc…

This naive interpretation (or misinterpretation) of numbers completely disregards the complexity of the design process, focuses only on the goal of a perceived increase in conversions, and often sacrifices long-term prosperity and alignment with the mission of a business for short-term results.

Design helps communicate brand identity, style and purpose (among other things) and should be viewed as part of the solution to your customer’s problem. Content and data should be used in conjunction to solve the problems of your customers with your solutions.

If you are working with an external writer, take a look at their website to see how they value design. –Click to Tweet

If you’re still not sure, ask them how they feel about something on which you have a strong opinion, like pop-up subscription boxes. This should give you a strong indication as to whether you could work together.

Good Websites Look Like Other Good Websites

Creative people don’t follow the crowd.

A designer is often looking to create something different. They could be looking to provoke the crowd rather than follow it.

The business of creating websites is already crowded and standing out can be important. Once again, content creation and design have to be aligned with the same goals.

If a content writer is driven only by data and examples of what has worked in the past, aligning with an innovative design could be difficult.

The writer will need to focus more on storytelling or innovative writing techniques to accomplish the same goals. Useless maxims need to be discarded and exceptions need to be embraced.

The idea that any important call-to-action needs to be above the fold is the perfect example. Generally, this is probably a great idea and supported by data.

One exception is when the call-to-action is better supported by long-form copy. Asking for an action from a reader before such an action has been supported by the content is ineffective. It’s better to ask when appropriate and ignore the desire to stay above the fold.

Sometimes storytelling better serves the mission of the site as opposed to punchy copywriting strictly above the fold. Stories connect readers with the company and product while distancing those that aren’t potential fans in the first place.

Narrowing your market to true prospects through storytelling can save a company significant time and money rather than being in a race to build clicks and subscriptions.

When the goal of a site is to do something different, it’s essential that content be a part of this process. Content writing can be unique just like web designs can be formulaic. It’s important for both to work together.

Breaking down these and other assumptions can help alleviate tension and allow content and design to work together toward the same goal.

What assumptions do you believe create tension between content and design? How do you eliminate this tension?

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  1. Damien says:

    Terrific article, Vince. I had never really thought about the different connotations for “copywriting” vs “content writing”. I do see a lot of people calling themselves copywriters though who are actually more like article writers and don’t write (or aspire to write) or design copy that has the purpose of achieving a set goal. I think the general content on websites falls somewhere in the middle. It has to communicate and compel at the same time.

    The question of how content and design work together and where the line is drawn between the two is a really interesting one that will no doubt become a bigger issue as web technology improves, and I think you covered it really comprehensively. Will definitely be bookmarking this for re-reading!

    • Vince Robisch says:

      Thanks Damien. I really enjoy great design and it’s usually a great outcome when the design and content appreciate and compliment each other.

  2. Hi Vince. This is a really thought provoking piece. When it comes to the user experience I think content and design are both so important. A good design may capture the attention of your audience, but if the content is poor, they’ll soon disappear. Similarly poor design can undermine the value of good copy.

    In fact, it’s crucial both are considered and seen as complementary as they add to the user experience. I’ve got a great web developer that I work closely with and we have a really good relationship. As a non-techy she tells me I’m not constrained by the technical know-how and I frequently challenge her to find a way to make a creative idea happen. In return she creates design that compliments my copy. It’s a great relationship.

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